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How ‘Marvel’s Spider-Man’ Has Captivated the Masses

The record-breaking title owes its stunning success in large part to an unrivaled, visceral mechanic that lets gamers swing into superherodom

Getty Images/Sony/Ringer illustration

The first scene of Marvel’s Spider-Man, the sandbox game from developer Insomniac that set sales records on Sony’s PlayStation 4 this September, is an exercise in efficiency. A glimpse of One World Trade Center sets the scene, and a row of photographs suffices for an origin story; mercifully, the intro trusts that we’ve heard about the bite by the radioactive spider and the death of Uncle Ben. A quick pan around Peter Parker’s cramped studio paints a picture of a disorderly life: dead plant, discarded food container, empty savings jars, laptop screen with a web of cracks. Sketched schematics establish his DIY costume design, and a police scanner and app alert underscore his homebrew approach to fighting crime; no one’s sending Spidey a signal in the sky. When a distress call comes in, moments before a final notice about overdue rent slips under the door, Peter looks like any corporate commuter who’s late for work, hopping around in his boxers without time for a balanced breakfast. It’s a window into what makes Spider-Man such a relatable figure, arachnophobia be damned: He’s the superhero with a crappy apartment and a smelly suit.

Once he’s wearing that suit, though, he has powers that any normal apartment dweller would envy, and Insomniac doesn’t delay the gratification of taking control. With one last glance at the rent notice, Peter—no, Spider-Man—leaps out the window and starts webbing his way between buildings, and the cutscene seamlessly transitions into regular gameplay. Marvel’s Spider-Man’s action starts the way Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man movie ends: with the exhilarating spectacle of Spider-Man swooping across New York City’s skyline.

The movie scene runs roughly 30 seconds, whereas the game takes about 20 hours to complete. But the sensation of soaring across the city never ceases to excite. Swinging is the star of Marvel’s Spider-Man, and Insomniac knows it. Because the game takes place eight years into the comic book icon’s crime-fighting career, it features an experienced Spider-Man who has command of his powers, not the nascent teen version who’s still figuring out what he can crawl on and how to shoot webs without getting goo on everything. And from the first scene, the player can swing anywhere in the city, with intuitive, uncomplicated controls and zero restrictions on what Spidey can cling to or how high he can climb. Insomniac’s big goal, game director Ryan Smith says, was to design the system such that “even in that first opening swing, you could feel like Spider-Man instantly.” The result is a core mechanic that creates what Variety’s Alex Kane called “quite possibly, the most fluid and flawless traversal system seen in a game.” And that system more than makes up for the game’s few failings.

Marvel’s Spider-Man is more than a swinging simulator: It combines the fluid combat of Rocksteady Studios’ Batman: Arkham series with the propulsive plotting and funny/serious storytelling of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4 and judicious use of Spider-Man’s backstory. At its heart, though, the game’s structure is strongly reminiscent of many other entries in the Ubisoft-inspired open-world mold, from Assassin’s Creed to Far Cry to Ghost Recon to Middle Earth. Just as in those games, the player climbs to high points across the map (in Marvel’s Spider-Man, they’re surveillance stations) and unlocks dozens of repetitive, mostly mind-numbing activities, such as stopping crimes or collecting backpacks.

In most games of that sort, the sight of countless collectibles and side quests strewn across the map is exhaustion-inducing, transforming a stress-releasing recreational activity into a completionist chore. Checking off every challenge takes hours of virtual running or riding and usually delivers little payoff apart from the compulsive satisfaction of seeing the “percent complete” counter climb in the menu. Marvel’s Spider-Man’s side quests and collecting aren’t notably better, but each cookie-cutter task has the same saving grace: it means more swinging, which makes the journey worthwhile regardless of the destination. The best superhero video games make fighting more fun than most Marvel movies have succeeded in doing, and Marvel’s Spider-Man makes swinging more fun than fighting.

Spidey can’t swing without skyscrapers, so to implement the centerpiece system of its first licensed title (and the first game to feature the flipbook logo that’s familiar to Marvel moviegoers), Insomniac had to build a bustling New York City. The studio, which is famous for its Spyro, Ratchet & Clank, and Resistance series, didn’t start from scratch: Like a lot of developers of blockbuster games with large open worlds, Insomniac used the third-party Houdini effects tool for a first pass at generating its massive, Manhattan-sized terrain. Rather than, say, manually place every lamppost from which Spidey can launch skyward, Insomniac could specify certain rules for lamppost location and have Houdini line them throughout the streets. But Spider-Man’s virtual Manhattan doesn’t feel like a purely procedurally generated landscape; there were many human hands at work in designing its look and layout. “The artists [and] designers did do a ton of hand-crafting,” Smith says. “Even once we had the buildings, it wasn’t just like, ‘OK, cool, it’s come out of the machine and now we’re all done.’ They did painstaking work for propping, decorating, picking all the different signage and all of that.” Insomniac studied and mimicked the subtle angles and curves of some of the city’s real-life arteries rather than relying on a rigid grid, but it also took a lot of liberties with the layout, inserting extra junctions into major avenues to force the player to navigate around obstacles instead of swinging through long stretches of unobstructed space.

Spider-Man wasn’t Insomniac’s first attempt at constructing a traversal system for an open-world game. The studio’s 2014 Xbox One shooter Sunset Overdrive also owed a debt to Houdini and was also acclaimed for making routine navigation a rewarding activity in itself. “Sunset’s traversal—the way you look at the city as a sort of a playground—that’s been moved forward [into Spider-Man],” Smith says. Sunset empowered the player to dash, bounce, and grind across the fictional Sunset City, and it dispensed with a cover mechanic in favor of encouraging the player to maintain momentum and elude attacks. Compared to Sunset, Spider-Man’s movement is much faster, and its protagonist’s pendulum-like arcs across the city place different demands on the physics system.

In the long lineage of Spider-Man games, each title has embraced its own strategy for swinging. Some Spider-Man games have sapped swinging of its thrill, reducing it to a rote activity akin to walking while suspended from strands. Others have made no attempt to ground Spidey’s movement in real-life physics: Strands shot from his hands into the sky, where they stuck to … something, even though the character might be above the nearest building and there were no other anchors around. Prior to Marvel’s Spider-Man, the swinging standard was set by Treyarch’s 2004 classic Spider-Man 2, which Smith says Insomniac used as a reference point. But that game’s more demanding movement system was clunkier, had a higher learning curve, and made it more difficult to stay at top speed.

Smith says that swinging was “one of our first or literally the first thing we actually worked on.” Insomniac’s traversal team understood early on that “swinging had to be physics-based and webs had to attach to buildings. … Of course, it had to be fun, too, so it wasn’t going to be pure physics, but we wanted to keep it grounded in physics, and a lot of our iteration along the way was how to blend that player control with transferring momentum and letting you build up speed and carry that through.” An inexperienced player can hold down the right shoulder button and automatically swing to the next nearby building, assuming there’s one within reach. (Central Park presents problems, although Spidey can still swing from trees.) Although the system is simple for the player, it requires a complicated coding process. Buildings don’t have preset points that webs can attach to; instead, Spidey’s strands can cling anywhere along the building face (typically at the top of the structure), with the precise placement determining the character’s trajectory. Smith explains that the game engine “maps the whole building in an optimized way. And then there’s a lot of gameplay code that is computing where is the best attach point based off where you’re trying to go, where you’re trying to steer, what the buildings are like around you.”

Movement in Marvel’s Spider-Man is very forgiving: There’s no penalty for falling, and swinging straight into a building activates a transition into other modes of movement, with little slackening in speed. “Physics is not always completely predictable from the player’s standpoint, so we have all the transitions between swinging into the wall run,” Smith says. “You don’t slam into a wall and just stop, because you’re Spider-Man, you’ve been doing this for eight years.” Similarly, if the player clips the corner of a building, the Spider-Man model will shove off the façade and keep up the pace. Smith says that these and other small touches—including letting players time their release and launch off the line in a way that “makes you feel like a superhero”—came from feedback from testers outside the design team, whose guidance was instrumental in “getting from ‘It works for me’ to ‘It works for all these people who haven’t built it and they just want to experience Spider-Man.’”

Although the swinging system is physics-based, Insomniac fudged the physics and geography in some subtle ways to find the perfect feel. The game’s city streets are slightly narrower than their real-life counterparts, because attaching to a higher point rather than one off to the side gives players greater control of their forward movement. For the same reason, Insomniac added an outward force from the buildings that lightly repels the Spider-Man model, making it easier to swing down the center of a street without being pulled toward the anchor point. The studio also inserted an animation in which Spider-Man automatically “tucks and dives a little bit” when he’s slightly above an approaching building, lowering him into a height range from which the player can attach and keep swinging. Manhattan hallmarks like awnings, fire escapes, and water towers received special treatment in the code so that Spider-Man could clamber over or through them quickly in a realistic-looking way. None of this is noticeable enough to disrupt the player’s sense of immersion; it all just works in the way that an escapist superhero fantasy should.

Although Insomniac’s swinging system prioritizes accessibility over depth, there’s enough nuance to the traversal to impart a sense of player progression. “We wanted it to start off feeling great and get greater from there,” Smith says. The Marvel’s Spider-Man skill tree includes multiple upgrades to the swinging system, including the option to perform tricks in midair, the ability to do double-dash “web zips” toward a building or object, and a timing-based mechanism to spring forward after touching down on the ground. The motivation for adding those unlockable skills, Smith says, was “making sure that it was pick-up-and-play but had legs as you go along in the game. It doesn’t get old because there’s different rhythms you can find or there’s different actions you can take.” By clearly conveying the character’s capabilities and removing impediments to the player’s progress, Insomniac instills a state of flow that makes merely crossing the map more rewarding than most games get at their most climactic moments.

Although some Marvel’s Spider-Man missions—including the helicopter chase shown in the 2017 E3 demo—make swinging a central part of the action, it’s usually more a means of conveyance than a necessity. Even so, every aspect of the game’s audiovisual presentation reinforces the sense that swinging isn’t just a way to reach the next faceoff with the Sinister Six or kill time between missions. Dynamic music and wind noise swells when the player leaves a perch and starts swinging, and the camera falls behind or catches up to Spidey depending on how fast he’s swinging, which conveys a more visceral sense of speed. Before every line of dialogue, the game checks to see if Spidey is swinging; if he is, it triggers a more strained reading of the line to suit the action on screen.

With all of those elements working in tandem, swinging is so addictive that it feels like a letdown to descend to ground level, even though Insomniac made an effort to portray pedestrians and traffic in a realistic way. “We had those types of discussions, ‘Oh, people will just be swinging,’ but we really were invested in making New York feel like New York,” Smith says. The game does have an extraneous-seeming fast-travel option, which enables the player to warp from point to point via the map or the city’s subway system, but as Smith says, “We hope people don’t feel like they need to use fast travel too much, because it’s actually really fun to swing around.” In Marvel’s Spider-Man, teleportation isn’t a superpower that most players will want. Peter Parker might take the subway, but Spider-Man swings.